The American Response to Coronavirus

When the coronavirus first landed stateside, we panicked. Lacking solid leadership, we sorted through mountains of contradicting information and tried to decide how to handle a crisis unlike anything we’d seen in our lifetimes. For some, our first impulse was to use caution: stay home, cancel travel plans, and limit trips to the grocery store. For a surprisingly large number of us though, our immediate response was obvious and pressing: hoard! 

Toilet paper and hand sanitizer flew off the shelves. We purchased so much personal protective equipment that frontline workers couldn’t get the masks and gloves they needed for their work. In a moment of crisis, chaos, and confusion, we bought stuff to feel in control. We knew we might contract a deadly virus at any moment, but as long as we had a year’s supply of toilet paper on hand, we held on to the hope that we’d be okay. 

Many were dismayed by the actions of the hoarders. If nobody stockpiled there would be no shortages, but as supplies dwindled, nearly everyone felt the pressure to purchase goods before they were gone. Caught in a loop, we created a shortage where no shortage needed to happen—but if there was no imminent threat of a shortage, why did the buying craze begin in the first place, and again, why toilet paper? 

As COVID-19 shut down our economy, there was an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. Some of us were dealing with financial woes or grieving the loss of loved ones, and others were simply shaken by the progression of the pandemic. Amidst the chaos, we turned to consumption as a coping mechanism. Shopping has proven to be an effective mood booster because it triggers our brain’s reward system. A new purchase is a treat, and shoppers are awarded a hit of dopamine. Additionally, according to the Journal of Consumer Research, consumers feeling out of control are more likely to purchase products of a functional nature, asthose functional purchases are less likely to induce  post-shopping guilt. The 2017 study cites the examples of screwdrivers and dish detergent, but it’s clear that in March 2020 we Americans were, above all, mass-purchasing toilet paper to regain our sense of control.

It’s a fine line to walk when your mood becomes linked to the acquisition of material goods. Luckily for most of us, this phase of compulsive consumption and hoarding didn’t last long. As the panic receded and we all found our shelter-in-place grooves, consumption—and the pace of American life—slowed dramatically. Soon we found the need to simplify. 

How does this relate to minimalism?

The minimalist movement is often summed up with the simple mantra, “less is more.” Discarding unnecessary belongings leads to clarity and allows us to focus less on material goods and more on people, experiences, and ourselves. Minimalism doesn’t center solely on discarding material goods, though, it also requires a rejection of consumer culture and the idea that more money and more belongings leads to more happiness. Many people initially turn to minimalism to adjust to a pay cut or a less lucrative career change, but true minimalism goes further than this, and those of us who stick with it are the ones who realize that by cutting back, we aren’t just saving money, we’re also living a more fulfilling life. 

When the coronavirus put almost 36 million people out of work, they had no choice but to slow down and cut back. Americans settled into a routine of involuntary simplicity, and it taught many of us to reexamine the complex lives we deemed normal before our reality was shaken by a global pandemic.

How are Americans adjusting during coronavirus?

  1. Staying close to home

With non-essential travel prohibited, we’ve learned to stay close to home. Gyms, pools, and team sports are out, so many Americans have taken up walking, running, cycling, or exploring local hiking trails. Much like working from home, recreating in our own neighborhoods saves us time and connects us with our communities.

  1. Spending less and saving more

Americans are spending less on almost every shopping category. 77% are spending less on going out, 70% are spending less on travel, 69% on services, and 49% on clothing. Americans are getting increasingly practical with their spending, and reevaluating their normal budgets to decide which expenses are necessary and which ones aren’t. Many people have been surprised by how much they don’t actually miss.

  1. Working from home

Over half of employed Americans have transitioned to remote work. A Harris Poll surveyed 1,200 adults working from home during Covid-19, and the results are illuminating: while many miss the office, 65% reported that their productivity has increased, and 73% reported that none of their tasks take longer. Companies are simplifying across the board, paring down meetings and allowing more flexible schedules, and the work is still getting done. The average American spends over 230 hours a year driving to and from work. With remote work, the time it normally takes to get ready for work, commute to and from work, and decompress after work is freed up for other uses, and workers have the opportunity to interact with their families throughout the day. The pandemic has shown a lot of people that there is a simpler way to do their job.

  1. Eating less meat

Meatpacking plants across the country have been hotspots for COVID-19 outbreaks. By mid-April, many meat processing and packaging plants had suspended operations or shut their doors entirely to prevent further spread of the outbreak. The impact of these closures was almost immediately visible on our grocery store shelves and in restaurants as meat supply dwindled. On April 28th, after over 5,000 meatpacking plant workers across 19 states had already fallen ill from coronavirus, President Trump issued an executive order to ensure that “processors of beef, pork, and poultry in the food supply chain continue operating and fulfilling orders.” Yet these plants closed because they couldn’t find a way to operate while also keeping their employees safe; new sanitation and social distancing guidelines were not enforceable. Factory employees work in crowded, often poorly ventilated spaces that make physical distancing impossible. The executive order triggered intense national debate, causing millions of Americans to question, perhaps for the first time, whether meat production is worth risking the lives of factory workers, most of whom are people of color, immigrants, and people from low-income families. 

What’s next?

Healthline tells us it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit, and an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic. We’ve been sheltering in place since mid-March, more than 80 days. As things begin to open up, many of us will be looking forward to returning to things we had to live without during the pandemic. We’ve begun to make changes to adapt to these uncertain times, so it will be interesting to see which of these new habits, particularly those that have simplified our busy routines, will carry over into post-pandemic life. As a society, have we actually learned from this experience? Will we continue to live more simply and thoughtfully? And finally, will we find more enduring happiness as a result of the choices we learned to make during the pandemic? For many of us, we cautiously hope to answer yes. 

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